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Medieval Inquisition: Christian Persecution in Piedmont Italy

Updated on January 8, 2012

The Persecution of the Waldenses

Throughout Christian history, many people have given their lives for their beliefs. Their suffering has been largely forgotten; we are told generalities, but rarely given specifics. We are told that Christians in Rome were fed to the lions, but if you travel to the Colosseum, you will be told that there is no evidence that it actually happened. We are not told of the countless people that died for their faith in the Middle Ages. Some may have heard of the Spanish Inquisition and their tortures, but there were inquisitions all over Europe. In Italy, there was a Roman Inquisition. The pope wanted to root out "heresy" in what is now present-day Italy. One area of Northern Italy, in the valleys of Piedmont, was persecuted with extreme ferocity.

This is their story. If you want to read more than what I have here, you can read about it in Foxe's Book of Martyrs (available free in on the internet).

Please note: I use the term "heretic" here to describe the persecuted people at times. I do not believe that they were heretics; I use that term for them as that is what they were being called by others at the time.

Piedmont region of Italy
Piedmont region of Italy

The Beginning of the Story...

Where's Waldo?

Around the year 1000, the Catholic church was quite powerful. Not everybody believed in the Catholic church though. People like Berengarius and Peter Bruis preached against the Roman Catholic church, and even called the pope the Antichrist. These beliefs spread, until the mid 1100s, when Peter Waldo began to preach against the church. He gained a large following, and was excommunicated by Pope Alexander III (not that this was likely to bother somebody who was preaching against that church).

One of Pope Alexander's successors, Pope Innocent III, decided to fight back against these heretics. He ordained some monks to be inquisitors, and to weed out the people that did not believe in or follow church doctrine. One of these monks was Dominic (who the Dominican monks are named after). The Franciscan monks would also become inquisitors. These inquisitors had extraordinary power to destroy the lives of the accused. Anonymous tips would be taken. Heretics, including all the followers of Waldo, would have their estates confiscated (very convenient for the Catholic Church). The Inquisition was especially cruel in Spain and France. Many of the Christians who followed the ideas of Waldo, known as Waldensians, settled in the Piedmonth area of Northern Italy, in an attempt to avoid persecution.

Persecutions in Italy Begin

For a while, life was pretty quiet for the Waldenses. They kept to themselves and were quite successful. In general, they obeyed the laws of the land, even paying tithes to the Roman clergy.

After a while, they began to draw the attention to some of the Catholics in the area. They made a complaint to the archbishop of Turin, making the following complaints:

  1. They didn't believe in the Roman Catholic Church's doctrine.

  2. They didn't make offerings or prayers for the dead.

  3. They didn't attend Mass.

  4. They did not go to confession or receive absolution.

  5. They did not believe in purgatory, and they did not pay money to rescue the souls of their family or friends from it.
The archbishop decided that that needed to change. He ordered a persecution of the non-Roman Catholic Christians in the area. Many people in the area were persecuted, until the residents had had enough.

Some of the Torture Devices Used


Fighting Back

The Waldenses didn't like being tortured and killed, so they decided to fight back. Now that these non-Catholics were fighting back, the bishop of Turin increased his efforts, and sent his own troops. In most of the battles, the Waldenses were successful. They were more acquainted with the area, particularly the mountain passes. They were also more desperate to win: they knew that if they lost, they would be tortured and put to death as heretics.

The fighting caught the attention of Philip VII, the duke of Savoy, and secular ruler of the Piedmont area. He decided to step in and stop the fighting, as it was disturbing his territory. He didn't want to offend the pope, but he complained that his lands were being overrun by troops, commanded by priests, and that his lands were being depopulated. He complained that he hadn't even been consulted when this action was taken.

Monster baby? by juliaf
Monster baby? by juliaf

Monster Babies?

The priests didn't want to have to stop their persecutions, so they decided to try to turn the duke against these people. They told the duke that the Waldenses were wicked. They said that the people were drunks, unclean, blasphemous, adulterous, incestuous, and committed many other crimes. Even their children were born with grotesque monster features: their children were born with black throats, four sets of teeth, and hair all over their bodies.

The duke was not gullible enough to believe these lies. He decided to send twelve gentlemen into the valleys to investigate and find out the truth. The gentlemen traveled through the valleys and talked to the inhabitants. They discovered that these individuals were harmless, friendly, hard-working, and pious. If any of the individuals committed any of the crimes that the priests accused them of, they were punished. They discovered that the children were not monsters at birth, but fine individuals. When they returned, they had twelve men, several women, and children of various ages accompany them back to the court to meet the duke.

The duke talked to the men, women, and children that traveled to the court, and discovered for himself that they were not monsters. He then sent them home, and commanded that the persecution of these people should cease.

Coat of Arms of the Duchy of Savoy
Coat of Arms of the Duchy of Savoy

A New Duke; Persecutions Resume

The believers lived in peace for many years, until Philip VII died. His successor was a strong supporter of the Roman Catholic church, and was bigoted against those that held different beliefs. He also didn't like the fact that some of the Waldensian preachers had started to preach openly, and not just to their own people. The duke sent troops into the valleys, promising to flay them alive if they refused to change their religion. The commander discovered that it was not practical to conquer the people with a small number of troops: the Waldenses were familiar with the area, were well-armed, and had secured the passes. For every person that was flayed alive, dozens of the duke's troops would be killed. Pope Paul III became involved. They decided to send a delegation to the valleys of Piedmont; threatening them to renounce their faith, or persecutions would resume. The Waldensians replied that their souls were more important than their bodies, and they would not renounce their faith.

The authorities kidnapped and tortured Waldensians when they could, and solicited the help of the king of France. The king was going to supply troops, until the Protestant German princes decided to intervene, threatening to send their own military against the French if they intervened. The French backed down, and the Waldenses were undisturbed for a while.

A few years later, one of the pope's representatives came to visit the duke of Savoy. He told the duke that he was surprised that the Waldenses had neither been rooted out nor compelled to join the Roman Catholic church, and that he looked upon the situation with suspicion. The duke didn't want to be seen in that light, so he ordered the Waldenses to attend Mass on a regular basis, or to be put to death. They refused, and the duke sent a huge army to persecute his non-Catholic subjects.

Some were hung, some were drowned, some were ripped open. Others were tied to trees, thrown from cliffs, burnt, pierced with prongs, killed on the rack, stabbed, torn apart by dogs, or crucified upside down. Their churches were destroyed, their property stolen, and their houses were burned.

The inhabitants fled for the hills, and lived in caves and among rocks in the Alps. The troops pursued them into the mountains for a while, although many must have died in the Alps, as winter was on its way.

The duke tired of the war after a while, as he had lost many of his troops. His son, Charles Emmanuel, took over the dukedom after his death, and chose to make peace with the Waldenses.

Read More

Foxe's Book of Martyrs (Pure Gold Classics)
Foxe's Book of Martyrs (Pure Gold Classics)

You can read more about this in Foxe's Book of Martyrs, chapters IV and VI. Or you can read it for free online.

Italian Alps by jackph
Italian Alps by jackph

Persecutions Continued

In 1561, Pope Pius IV convinced the Marquisate of Saluces to persecute the Protestants in the southern end of the Piedmont valleys. He banished the ministers, and sent letters to the towns and villages, telling them that they needed to go to Mass. They refused, answering via letter. At this point, the duke became involved; he decreed that his citizens needed to go to Mass, or they would have to leave his dukedom within 15 days. The Protestants tried to appeal, to no avail. Some went to Mass; others left the country in haste. Those that stayed behind had their property stolen and were put to death.

Pope Clement VIII sent missionaries into the Piedmont valleys. When they complained tot he duke, he decreed that it would only take one witness to persecute a Protestant in the court of law; furthermore, any witness that convicted a Protestant of a crime would be given a bounty of 100 crowns. Needless to say, they had many takers.

The missionaries confiscated Bibles prayer books, and religious tracts, so they could burn them. The duke then decreed that Protestants could not be schoolmasters or tutors, and were not allowed to teach anybody art, language, or science. Children of Protestants were taken away to be raised by Roman Catholics. On 25 January, 1655, the Protestants were given three days to leave the area, upon pain of death. They once again had to leave the area for the mountains, in the middle of the winter. Some left their homes without enough clothing to cover them, others ended up starving.

Sword by José-Manuel Benito.
Sword by José-Manuel Benito.

The Piedmontese War

Most of the population in the Piedmontese valleys had been decimated over the years due the murders and persecutions. One community, Roras, hadn't been destroyed yet, as it was extremely difficult to approach due to its location in the mountains.

One man of military genius, Joshua Gianavel, led the citizens in the defense of their village. They had their own military intelligence, that told them when troops were approaching. As they came through the narrow pass, the hidden villagers attacked the soldiers. They were not happy to take up arms, but they felt it necessary for their own self-defense.

Three groups of soldiers, comprising of 8,000 men total, were assembled to take the town. They threatened the people of Roras that they would attack simultaneously, unless the townspeople agreed to pay the expenses of the war against them, go to Mass, pray to the saints, wear beards, pay to get their loved ones out of purgatory, and a few other conditions. The inhabitants refused, and the three armies descended upon the town. People were cruelly tortured and killed, but several were killed.

Some escaped, although Captain Gianavel's wife and children were taken captive. The Marquis de Pianessa sent a letter to Captain Gianavel, promising to put his wife and children to death if he did not embrace the Roman Catholic faith and pay for the losses in the war; if he did become a Roman Catholic, his wife and children would be released. Gianavel responded that although he wanted to rescue them from danger, "the purchase of their lives must not be the price of my salvation."

The Protestant forces, under Gianavel and other military commanders, like Captain Jahier, harassed the papal troops. They tried and failed to take some towns, and succeeded in taking others. When they took the town of Vilario, they sent a message ahead telling them that he was going to attack, that the women and children, of any religion, would be safe, that all male Protestants had to join them in the army, and that all who returned to God would be received as friends. The Protestants joined them, and most of the Roman Catholics fled, knowing that their force was not large enough to withstand the army against them.

Captain Jahier was killed after the papal forces surrounded his men. Soldiers cut off his head and took it to Turin, to present to the duke of Savoy. Captain Gianavel was wounded shortly afterwards, and was no longer able to fight. The Protestants didn't stop fighting though. The Protestant forces prevailed in more battles, and the Roman Catholics retreated, but not until they set fire to the corn fields of some of the Protestants.



This is a fictional take on what happened when the town or Roras fought back.


Persecution Continues Today

Eventually, international pressure ended the persecution in Northern Italy, but persecution still goes on today in the world. Just recently, Christans were killed in Iran and Pakistan. Chinese Christian Brother Yun recorded his experiences with persecution in his home country in the book The Heavenly Man. Who knows what is going on in North Korea?

Things are not getting better. Canadian preachers are being taken to court for hate speech when they preach the Bible. While not directed against Christians (now), anti-Semitism is also on the rise. As the world becomes more chaotic, people are likely to either turn to God or grow more angry and hateful.

The persecuted Christians bravely stood up for what they believed in, even though it meant that they were tortured. It is important to stand up for our beliefs and do the right thing, even though it may be difficult.

Angry face by imru2b12.
Angry face by imru2b12.

The Results of Christian Persecution

We feel the affects of the Medieval Inquisition to this day. The Inquisition has caused some people to sour on the idea of Christianity, and has given some people to hate the church.

There are some things to think about before using the Inquisition as an excuse to reject God. For one thing, many of the people at the time had little access to the Bible. They knew parts of the Bible, but it was only those parts that were passed down to them by their priests, cardinals, and popes. Reading the Bible was actually frowned upon. If you read the Bible, you can see that Jesus didn't kill or torture those who refused to follow him; yes, he will come again to judge nonbelievers, but he used persuasion to try to get people to follow him. He was saddened when people chose not to repent.

Secondly, much of the persecution was done against Christians. It was the Roman Catholic church that committed these atrocities. While Protestants were not entirely innocent, it was often under the guidance of a national church run by a King. These crimes were committed in the name of Jesus, but the real motive for many of these crimes seems to be greed, control, and power, not spreading the Gospel or demonstrating the love of Christ. I have been reading Fox's Book of Martyrs; while I have tried to tame the descriptions of some of the tortures for this page, some of the tortures described in the book seem to have been devised in the mind of Satan himself. If the religious persecutors were really trying to save souls, they wouldn't have killed and tortured people after they repented.

The persecutions were not only bad because they hurt the people in the Medieval era; they are hurting people today by causing them to hate Christ and Christians.

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What Do You Think?

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    • cwkerns lm profile image

      cwkerns lm 

      6 years ago

      Great lens. I really enjoyed it. The Waldenses were predecessors to the Ana-Baptist who preceded the Baptist. Check out the Trail of Blood.

    • jptanabe profile image

      Jennifer P Tanabe 

      7 years ago from Red Hook, NY

      Wow, I didn't know the story of the Waldenses in Italy - you did a great job telling it. Yes, how tragic that people are forced to suffer for their beliefs, in the same God and Christ as their persecutors too. You're right, Christianity gets a bad name for such things, and it turns people against God. That was me, but now I understand that it was the people and the politics of the church not God that caused all the problems.


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